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Labor Department Marks 100th Anniversary of Apprenticeships

By Stephenie Overman  6/10/2011
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At an event marking the 100th anniversary of state-registered American apprenticeships, U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Hilda L. Solis pledged to get the word out about “the incredible partnerships that labor and management have built.”

Solis spoke at the June 6, 2011, DOL event held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the investments that the building and construction trade unions and contractors make in worker training. Those private-sector investments add up to the nearly $1 billion annually, according to the department.

Apprenticeships lead to good jobs that allow people “to stay in the middle class,” Solis said. The apprenticeship model “is one of the best-kept secrets, [and] I want to let the secret out.”

Strong History, Bright Future

The event featured a display of mobile training units and demonstrations of construction industry skills. Wearing protective glasses and gloves, Solis took part in a bricklaying demonstration. Officials from the departments of Energy, Transportation and the Interior also participated to call attention to the growth of apprenticeships beyond the construction, manufacturing and utilities industries.


Solis noted that apprenticeship programs also are growing in industries such as health care and telecommunications. She said there are more opportunities for apprenticeships for “green jobs,” involving retrofitting homes, high-speed rail, wind power and solar panels.

Wisconsin created the first state-registered apprenticeship system in 1911. In 1937 Congress enacted the National Apprenticeship Act (i.e., the Fitzgerald Act), establishing the program as it is in 2011, according to the DOL’s Registered Apprenticeship website. About 37,000 program sponsors, representing more than a quarter-million employers, industries and companies, offer registered apprenticeship training to approximately 440,000 apprentices, according to the DOL.

Apprenticeship sponsors, who are employers, employer associations and labor-management organizations, register programs with federal and state government agencies. The sponsors provide on-the-job learning and academic instruction to apprentices according to their industry standards and licensing requirements.

“We practice collaborative labor/management relations…. These training trailers [on the Mall] reflect the best of our system,” said Lonnie Coleman, president and CEO of Cleveland-based mechanical contracting firm Coleman Spohn Corp.

“An apprenticeship opened the door for me, not just to a job but to a career,” said Coleman, who is the immediate past president of the national Mechanical Contractors Association—an organization of about 2,500 firms involved in heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, plumbing, piping and mechanical services.

Mark Ayers, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, said apprenticeships help improve workers’ earnings and productivity.

“We are also proud of the fact that our programs enroll women and minorities in higher numbers, and at higher rates, than do other programs,” said Ayers. “In addition, our completion rates are higher than other training programs, which positions participants not only for jobs but for careers in the construction industry.”

Kevin Burton, a trainer for National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, said that “by its structure, it has the ability to catapult people” into better circumstances. An apprenticeship “got me out of poverty [and] into the middle class.”

Other exhibitors on the Mall included Job Corps—the nation’s largest career technical training and education program for students 16 to 24—and YouthBuild USA, a community development program that helps low-income people ages 16 to 24 work toward their GEDs or high school diplomas, learn job skills and serve their communities by building affordable housing.

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va. 

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